Nowhere does the old "what comes around goes around" maxim make more sense than on cars. For example, most would think a hot setup, when it comes to factory-resto GTOs, would include some variety of Rally wheels, Tri-Power, a big honkin' piece of bent metal with a cue ball on top poking out of the console between the buckets, and a bright color to splash on the fenders. Yet today, acres of gorgeous GTOs can be seen at any show you care to visit. Any Poncho neophyte can drool over the obvious physical appeal of Judge stripes or a clean, brightly hued paint job, but which machines are the ones that the hardcore Pontiac lovers gather around? What do they sport? Steelies and pie-pans? Two-barrel carbs? Column-shift automatics and shifter-delete console plates? Colors that don't get seen much, and which may not even necessarily be attractive to a contemporary eye? It's the cars that don't have all of the desirable options that are the odd-man-out these days-the ones that demand that you look a little closer-and their rarity is the hook that serves to capture your attention.
One of those almost never-seen pieces is the California-only air pump, more properly termed the Air Injection Reactor (A.I.R.) Exhaust Control system, or Option 612 on your dealer's order sheet. Starting in 1966, the state of California demanded that all new vehicles sold within its borders be equipped with an air pump to help cut down on exhaust emissions and their attendant greenhouse gasses. This system required a closed air-cleaner housing with a single snorkel to provide air to the carb. WW-code (389 4-barrel with manual trans) engines like this one, XE (389 4-barrel with automatic trans) coded engines and WV (389 Tri-Power with manual trans) engines all got the system. Heads were revised across the board in 1966 regardless of the presence of the A.I.R. pump. You may have noticed that the 093 heads grew a substantial ridge between the valve cover and the exhaust ports, to deliver the pumped air directly into the ports. (In fact, this bulge necessitated a special head bolt for the center exhaust port, to enable a regular socket to fit.) A.I.R. was the first step in a long trip that continues to this day, through catalytic converters, computer controls, OBD-II (and III, someday), and now alternative-energy and hybrid vehicles, all in the noble effort to clean our nation's smoggy skies.
And you almost never see the A.I.R. system anymore-even on completely restored California cars. Why? Just because the dealer sold 'em that way didn't mean owners had to keep 'em that way. Hobbyists who did not yet have state-mandated emissions testing, almost universally yanked the power-sapping pumps off the fronts of their cars the minute they got them home from the dealership. An easy bolt-on like the A.I.R. pump meant equally easy removal for every GTO owner who knew his way around a wrench; the vast majority of these ended up in the garbage. Nowadays, you tamper with the emissions controls on a new car in California, and not only will you be discovered in 2 years' time when it comes to re-certify your vehicle, but emissions controls are such an integral part of the computer's programming that it probably wouldn't run right if you did.
Ronald Gunn, the New Salem, Pennsylvania-based owner of the completely restored Candlelight Cream '66 you see unfurled on these pages, was not by any means seeking out some rare beast built to wow 'em at the shows. Rather, he was looking to fulfill that age-old desire of recapturing his lost youth. See, Ron owned a silver 4-speed, 4-barrel '66 back in the day, went through 13 different engines in 6 years, and sold it in 1972 in order to help pay for his honeymoon. He had the opportunity to buy it back in late 1973, but passed. He's been kicking himself ever since.
So in the late '80s, Ronald started searching for a '66 he could use as a driver. The pages of Hemmings turned up an ad for Bethel's Goat Farm in California, and this particular '66. "I got pictures of it, and I was assured that it was a very good driver, so I bought it (for $6,200) and had it shipped home from California," 57 year-old Gunn related. This particular example was (and is) not overloaded with options, by any means; powered by its factory-built 335hp, Carter AFB 4-barrel-fed, 067-cammed 389 (code WW) and backed by a close-ratio M21 4-speed (with a 2.20 First), a YH-code 3.55:1 Safe-T-Track rear spins the (now) repro rear redlines. The map light option, AM radio with reverb and power antenna, power steering, console and late-availability headrests were among the extras in the Code 223 Black Morrokide interior. Beyond that, there wasn't much else-9.5-inch 4-wheel drums, standard gauges, and no vinyl top...it even wore the original steel wheels and pie-pan hubcaps it was sporting when it rolled off the Fremont, California, assembly line. Everything pointed toward a more or less minimalist GTO. But then there's that air pump, which-for reasons that forever will be lost in the mists of time-remained attached to the front of the engine.
Ron had no idea about the rarity of such a thing...but soon he learned. "It had a poor red paint job on it, so I decided to get it painted. Then a friend tells me that this is a numbers-matching car. I got talked into a total restoration." That meant stripping away any last vestige of Resale Red and going down to bare metal. The flanks were twice coated in primer, treated to four coats of R&M acrylic enamel in the proper Code Y Candlelight Cream; the clearcoat was wet-sanded with 1000 and 1600 grit papers. Mosside Specialty Cars in Pittsburgh took care of squirting the pigment, as well as assembling most of the reproduction interior.
With a little bit of cleaning on the chassis, original factory paint inspection marks were revealed. (Such are the joys of original, rot-free California machines that such things remain visible decades after rolling off the assembly line.) "The chassis was so clean, you could have cleaned it with a sponge and seen original factory overspray. You turn a nut, and you don't need a torch, or Liquid Wrench, or anything," enthused Ronald. "The nut just comes off. I have a 2 year-old truck that you can't do that with." The inspection marks are more easily visible now that everything is once again GM chassis black.
The original mill was brought back to factory spec; it's not even .030 over. It was, however, balanced, blueprinted, given a blueprinted factory-spec Crane cam, and treated to a valve job to run on contemporary unleaded gas.
Ronald added a couple of options during the resto, including Rally I wheels, Rally gauges, and a power booster to help those 4-wheel drums grind to a halt. The entire effort took a whopping 10 on-again, off-again years, which saw Scott Tiemann of Supercar Specialties in Portland, Michigan, finish things up. Meantime, Ron bought another GTO, a '67, to putter about town in. "I got sick of not having something to drive," he says. He also stayed busy racing his '67 GTO (running 10.60s the weekend we caught up with Ron, at the 2002 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals).
Ron says, "Scott told me that I wouldn't have a gold winner as it stood, so he plated all of the original hose clamps, attended to a couple of more details, and gave me some show tips." And then it was off to the show circuit. "First time at the POCI Nats in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, in 1998, it got 391 out of a possible 400 points. The next year it was awarded 394 points. At first I wasn't too cool about a yellow car, but now I love it. The GTO doesn't always win local car shows, but it always wins at points-judged awards." The paleface Injun was trailered for 2 years, but is now driven to local shows, weather permitting.
Pontiac fans can breathe a deep, A.I.R.-cleaned sigh of relief.